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The Next President:
Uniformly Civilian?

Sen. John McCain is the lone top contender for 2008 to serve active duty. (AP)

As some of the leading presidential candidates trooped before the Veterans of Foreign War in Kansas City this week, there was one thing largely missing at the lectern -- veterans of foreign wars.

With the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), none of the frontrunning White House contenders has served in the military. Unless McCain rebounds from his political collapse, it looks like next year's presidential election will be the first since World War II in which neither of the major party nominees is a veteran.

The cattle call at the VFW underlined a remarkable cultural and political shift in American society. There was a time when military service was almost a prerequisite for public office. Every president from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush had served. But since the end of the Cold War, the political leadership of the country has increasingly come from the exclusively civilian world. Bill Clinton, who avoided the draft during Vietnam, beat veterans Bush and Robert J. Dole. And fewer than half as many veterans sit in Congress today than in 1991.

"The torch is being passed to a new generation that's never worn a uniform," said Kenneth T. Jackson, a military historian at Columbia University. "It's a significant change. It means people are now coming of age who are really the post-Vietnam generation."

The complexion change at the top reflects the end of the draft in the 1970s, giving birth to a cohort of leaders who were never required to endure basic training or risk the front lines. The all-volunteer military has stratified society more broadly by eliminating that shared experience and creating a new leadership class that not only has no personal familiarity with military duty but often little personal connection to anyone who does.

What that really means is up for debate. McCain, the Vietnam hero and prisoner of war, naturally argues that his service helped prepare him to lead in another time of war. "Clearly, voters will take life experience into consideration when electing our next president," said spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan. "John McCain's record of service and sacrifice makes him uniquely qualified -- more than anyone else running on either side -- to lead as commander in chief from day one."

But that argument hasn't seemed to resonate for him so far this year. While 48 percent of voters in a February survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate with military experience, that hasn't stopped McCain's freefall in the polls. Leading him among Republicans are three candidates who never saluted anyone, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney.

And for that matter, none of the leaders on the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, served in uniform. Those candidates who do have military experience are lagging well behind in the polls. Among the Republicans, Duncan Hunter was an Army Ranger who served in Vietnam and Ron Paul was a flight surgeon in the Air Force. Among the Democrats, Mike Gravel served in the Army and Chris Dodd in the Army National Guard and Army Reserves.

The VFW, for one, has noted the dearth of veterans in the top tier. "It's certainly indicative of a significant change in our society," said retired Navy Cmdr. Joe March, the group's national public relations director. "However, what matters most to veterans is leadership that cares about those who served and is willing to support the kinds of legislation that provies the thanks of a grateful nation for those who served."

Jackson, the military historian, said he thinks the change in leadership makes a difference in terms of policy if not politics. "When you have leaders who haven't gone [to war], I do think it changes the equation a little bit," he said. "It's a little bit worrisome. People who have actually been to war ... are actually a little less inclined to go to war. Generals know what war's about and they're less enthusiastic to go rocketing off than civilians." On the other hand, many former Clinton aides say he was so sensitive about his lack of service that for years he deferred to the Pentagon until he finally grew confident enough to make his own judgments.

Most American presidents have had military service -- 31 of the 42 men who have held the office had previously worn the nation's uniform. But it has gone through cycles. Six of the seven presidents after the Civil War had served as generals. But after Theodore Roosevelt, six presidents in a row had no military background -- including the ones who led the United States through two world wars, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The post-World War II era in the White House was dominated by former soldiers and sailors until Clinton came along. And even then, Clinton was an aberration until this cycle. From 1960 through today, only one other person has won a major party nominee without serving, Hubert Humphrey. Even since Clinton's election, every other nominee has been a veteran -- Al Gore and John F. Kerry both served in Vietnam, while Dole was wounded in Italy in World War II. George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, even if it became a source of controversy.

The lack of any similar furor so far this campaign also seems to signal change. Attacks on candidates for their service, or lack thereof, have been a staple certainly since 1992. Clinton, of course, had to contend with accusations of draft dodging, the younger Bush's service papers in the Guard were heavily scrutinized and Kerry's accounts of his experiences as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam were questioned.

Just this week, a group called the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, responding to the president's speech to the VFW comparing Iraq to Vietnam, took a shot at Bush for his stateside service during that last war. "The last thing these veterans needed was a history lesson," the group said in a statement. "They remember America's wars because they actually fought them."

This time around, instead of asking where the candidates were during Vietnam, the campaign dialogue so far has focused on where their kids are now. Romney faced an uncomfortable situation when asked by an antiwar activist at a recent appearance in Iowa why none of his five sons were serving in Iraq.

"My sons are all adults and they've made decisions about their careers and they've chosen not to serve in the military and active duty and I respect their decision in that regard," he answered. He added: "One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president." After that stirred a dustup, he clarified that he did not mean to equate campaigning with fighting in a war.

The shift in backgrounds can be seen on Capitol Hill as well. In 1991, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, 68 percent of the Senate and 48 percent of the House had served in the military. Today, according to the Military Officers Association of America, just 29 percent of the upper chamber and 23 percent of the lower chamber have been in uniform. Among the incumbents who left after last year's election either because of retirement or defeat, twice as many had served as the freshmen coming in to replace them.

In theory, that could begin to change again in the opposite direction as Iraq war veterans begin to enter public life. But they did not fare well in their 2006 campaign. Of six candidates last year who had served in Iraq, only one won, Democrat Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania.

-- Peter Baker

By Post Editor  |  August 23, 2007; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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